EXPERIENCE: THE SOUL OF THE THERAPY

By Dr. Dan L. Edmunds, Ed.D.

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When a distressed person enters the realm of modern psychiatric practice they are first confronted with what Laing terms as the ‘psychiatric ceremonial’. In this process, the experience of the person is not considered. Rather, the psychiatrist sits in a place of judgment, he being considered sane and stable, and determines by his subjective observation of behavior how the person is a deviant from what should be expected of him or her and then categorizes it and assigns it a label. There is no concern for the person’s experience, rather the person is seen as an ‘it’, as an object whose behavior is to be analyzed. Science is only able to examine what is, not what will be. It is based on duplication of results, but can we duplicate experience. When we merely look at behavior without understanding the context of it, we draw false conclusions. Understanding the context may lead us to see that the behavior is not truly meaningless after all. Frankl (pg. 133) states, “An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being…a doctor, who would still interpret his role mainly as that of a technician would confess that he sees in his patient nothing more than a machine…but man is ultimately self-determining.”

Laing (pg. 53) states, “behavior therapy is the most extreme example of such schizoid theory and practice and proposes to think and act purely in terms of the other without reference to the self of the therapist or the patient, in terms of behavior without experience, in terms of objects rather than persons. It is inevitably therefore a technique of nonmeeting, of manipulation, and social control.’ Experience is the soul of psychotherapy and we should note that the term psychotherapy literally means the ‘healing of the soul’. The therapeutic process should be a meeting of two human beings, it should be the sharing and understanding of experience. Laing (pg. 17-18) states that “I see you and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behavior and you see my behavior. But I do not and never will see your experience of me.” It is popular today to look at individuals’ behaviors merely as the result of chemical processes or the effects of so called chemical imbalances. But then we must ask the question as Laing did- do chemicals come together because they love each other? Do atoms explode because they hate one another?

So often we seek to ignore experience. Laing (pg. 36) notes the invalidation of experience by such comments as ‘that never happened’, or the trivialization of experience, or to invalidate its content by such words as “it wasn’t really that way’ or ‘how can you think such a thing?” We must realize that we exist in an existential vacuum, and it is these things that leads to the development of aggression, addiction, depression. Our behaviors are how we communicate distress; they are for some the only form of communication they know. Their behaviors communicate to us a glimpse of their experience. “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we will have lost our selves (pg.28).” The therapeutic process is a shamanic voyage, a journeying with another person. But can two human beings truly come together? Are there too many barriers? Can we put aside our affiliations, our ethnicities, our religions, and all the other things that set us apart? Can we come together completely bare and share in the human condition? Nietzsche stated, “Nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideas- because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these ‘values’ really had.” So, we must come together in nothingness and from this to ex nihilo, from nothing, become. We must as Frankl (pg. 112) stated be able to transform tragedy into triumph.

But without often realizing it, therapists and others become agents of oppression. Is our work solely leading people to become proper conformists, to do what others are doing? Is our work solely to make people adapt to totalitarianism, to do what they are told to do? It has always been these two processes that have led to the most dangerous of outcomes. When freedom and autonomy are taken, and individuals can no longer be individuals, when critical thinking has ceased, we have entered a dreadful place. Maybe we are already there. Freedom is to have choice and have regard for others. License is to do which one wishes without regards to the other. Often today we see the violence evoked on people in the name of a common good or a common cause, or as Durkheim would say the collective consciousness. We can even justify our brutality as progress if what we are doing somehow subdues a person, makes them more amenable to society, or brings us satisfaction. If we can turn a person into a ‘them’ by ascribing a label, then ‘we’ can feel justified to treat them as we wish. This violence which calls itself love can be found within the very structure of the family. Within the structure of the family are certain rules that are established that the members are to adhere to. These rules may not always be sensible, but nonetheless become a part of how the family operates. They are generally known whether or not they always be followed. It is dependent on who is in control and what the consequences are for violation whether the family members adhere to the established rules of conducting themselves.

Children have moments of looking at themselves apart from the established structure. This becomes more pronounced in the teen years. This can become a major source of contention inwardly where the child sees himself in a way that may not meet to the approval of the family structure. The structure where authoritarianism reigns may shun the thought and creative expression of the child leading to repression of independent thought and action. The child is expected to do those things which protect and preserve the family structure. The structure may be faulty, but nonetheless it is maintained, at times violently so. Being a deviant from the structure can have dire consequences for the child, from within the family structure itself and as a result of the energies wasted in a struggle to change something where they have not been empowered to evoke change. They are left only to comply. Their unhappiness and discontent will be ignored to preserve the 'integrity of the family structure."

Often there exists the situation of self fulfilling prophecies within certain structures. What one hears they unfortunately become. If a child is told that he is a certain way, and this becomes a repetitive message, it is likely he will behave in like fashion. The child may repeat the very language he hears, not necessarily knowing its meaning, but knowing it conveys a feeling and can be used as a defense.

There exists at times in families, one who will do all possible to preserve the structure, no matter how dysfunctional it may be. This person often utilizes an authoritarian stance and expects their children to respect them solely for the sake of their presumed authority. Their objective is control, and the independent or creative nature of the child is looked upon as a deficit. The child's only voice is to be the parental voice, if it is not, punishment will certainly come. This person is many times a person who implies the idea of 'do as I say" but not necessarily as they do. This creates despair in the child, leading to states of hopelessness and depression. They may begin to question their sense of self, their own identity. They become anxious, fearful children who appear timid because they dare not speak something which could bring them punishment from the authority in charge of the structure. This learned behavior begins to manifest outside the family structure as well, as these are the children who then become easily swayed by peer influence. These are the children who do not really know themselves so they adopt the traits of those around them, seeking to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging. They are thus always victims of control. Once they branch out from the control of the authoritarian parent, they are bound to be controlled by some other party who will influence their decisions and deprive them of critical thought. They may not realize they are being controlled, thinking they are somehow apart because they belong to a 'clan' who dresses this different way or that, but nonetheless they are under the control of something or someone. These children are usually the underachievers. They are not sure of what to strive for, thus they often do not strive at all. They allow life to merely 'happen' rather than taking charge themselves.

The overachiever is one bound by feelings of inadequacy and this often takes its roots in the familial structure. It is often in these situations where there exists a force within the family who has defined the rule of what it means to be 'successful'. There is the constant pressure and drive to have the child to conform to expectations. Those with this structure in place highly value competitiveness. The siblings are often competing for attention for one another. It is often the only child or the firstborn who is placed in the glorified role. If they meet the expectation, they are heaped with praise, if they do not; they are likely to be cast aside. Once cast aside, or in the worst case, cut off from the family, they often enter into depressed states. They may seek various avenues to mask their feelings of inadequacy. These feelings of inadequacy may impair their future relationships. They may become those always striving for an unreachable ideal, always slightly out of reach. They cannot fully accept themselves in the present moment, but always want to be gaining or achieving more. They become individuals whose level of dissatisfaction can become immense.

There is the public image and the private image. This dichotomy often creates great confusion and distress and can lead the child to questioning of reality and their identity. What is meant by the public image is what the leader(s) of the family structure wish to convey to the outside world, whereas the private image is that dysfunction which lies within that these individuals are wanting to conceal at whatever cost. Familial secrets exist, trust is lacking, and children are guarded about their expression. Children may be lied to and dilemmas between family members masked or suppressed. The real nature of things may be shrouded in confusion and 'mystery'. Mixed messages may arise, or the members of the family may see themselves placed in 'damned if you do and damned if you don't situations." Some family members may frustrate themselves in striving for the 'ideal' structure which never arrives.

In the dysfunctional structure, as in oppressive societal regimes, there are those who seek rebellion. Rebellion against the structure becomes more pronounced in the stage of adolescence where already the teenager is beginning to exert a greater sense of autonomy and desire to be apart from the familial structure. However, because children lack the resources for which to engage in a rebellion that could be successful, the rebellion is always squashed. What does this leave the child to do? They can do little but endure and await the period where they can break free from the structure that they find oppressive. What is termed 'conduct' problems is usually this desire to break free from what the child has perceived as oppressive in their lives. Often without the appropriate guidance and 'moral compass' coming from the familial structure, their rebellion turns not just to fighting the familial structure, but the structures outside which also resemble the authority they have found oppressive. This type of rebellion is usually futile and self-destructive. There exists the warring between parents themselves, which cause the children to be placed in the predicament of divided loyalties, not knowing which parent to turn towards. There may exist the opposing styles, one parent who is permissive and one who is the authoritarian. This scenario leads to immense conflict.

In the worst scenarios, the combination of 'seared in' memories of trauma, with the dynamics as mentioned above leads to the disintegration of the person. Reality is too painful, and is questionable. Reality is not reliable. As a result, this member of the family seeks to 'break out' and develops the behavior that would be termed psychosis. They retreat into their own inner world, their own sense of reality and identity. This too is often a painful journey, but not anymore painful than the experience of the structure they have felt subjected to. Children in some structures are still viewed as ‘property’; therefore they are often enslaved to the faulty structures. Mere compliance does not earn one's freedom but neither does active rebellion. Cycles exist, once a structure is learned, it is bound for continuation. The child in many instances will perpetuate the structure that they learned once they have their own family to lead. The stresses and trauma of one can often become the stresses and trauma of all, it becomes a collective trauma. The faulty structures within the family dynamics are seen in society as a whole. Therefore, we are all shaped by the society and the family structures in which we have encountered. Thus, concepts of 'mental illness' or the 'unruly child' all take shape and form by the experience one has in the family and ultimately in society. These are not biological processes, but rather social and political processes.

What is termed ‘madness’ or ‘mental illness’ is for some the only means for expression of their being lost and confused in a world which has caused them deep hurt and pain. Such is not disease but behavior with metaphorical meaning. There has been received through life mixed messages and placement into situations where regardless of the option they choose they felt damned. They seek to break out from the reality which has only caused them distress. The development of hallucinations and delusions are all metaphors for the very real demons they have encountered in disordered society. The inner mind, the voice within us, becomes amplified, and becomes ‘possessed’ with the demons coming forward from the trauma and distress which has been encountered. Rebellion against the system of things becomes self-destructive as the person seeks to send a message to the world of their distress, but it remains unheard. Each coping mechanism that has been employed has often led to failure and not brought them out of the unlivable situation that is their life. However, the catharsis of this pain and grief can go in two directions- it can be misery and existential death, or it can be transformative.

Through the pain and struggle, through the breaking out of the ‘typical reality’ one can journey through various modes of altered consciousness. Many deemed ‘mad’ speak of the supernatural. They have sought every attempt to reach out and create meaning. If they can be helped by a loving, supportive network to navigate through this state of confusion and the various realms of altered consciousness towards rebuilding and reconstructing a life of meaning, then they can come forward to a recovery that gives them valuable insight about human nature and who they really are and the reality of the impermanence of this life and the world around us. They will find that suffering is an inevitable, and it that suffering is the state of the world which is mired in greed and attachment. The one deemed ‘mad’ for once has accomplished a rare task- they have completely detached. But this detachment is only from the typical standards of the world. They remain haunted by the visions of their previous life.

They cannot escape it, and thus they become anxious and paranoid that something or someone will pull them back to that painful existence. At times, rage comes forward as the reaction to challenges, but who would not be outraged if their voice was suppressed and they became the scapegoat for the problems of their families or those around them? Those deemed ‘mad’, feeling always alone, depart to a world where they remain alone from people, yet may create for themselves beings who give them comfort and solace. This is really the end of their search, to simply be accepted and loved. But here too lies a problem, for when their lives have been devoid of love and they receive unconditional love, it becomes like an overwhelming fire that consumes them. They have never been loved, so how can they respond to an outpouring of love? When all they knew was that oppression and coercion was said to be because ‘we love you’, when ‘love’ really was only about control, how can the person then understand genuine love? Once again, the confusion sets in. To reach the person who has been deemed ‘mad’, we cannot overwhelm. Our sincerity will not be enough, for there trust has been shattered time and time again. It is only through entering their world for what it is, by joining in, and learning to speak the language, can we ourselves begin to understand the experience of these individuals. It is only by this joining in that the person may have the chance for their journey known as ‘madness’ to reach a transformative ending towards discovery.

What exactly is a person? We live, but what does it mean to actually live? Who are we? Where are we going? What exactly are we doing? Must we do anything? Must we go anywhere? It is innate in us to search out for meaning, wherever it may lie.

Life is our creation. We create it by our choices. In this ability to have choose, this is where we are gifted with freedom. But this freedom can be liberating or it can bring us to hell. Life is like a play or performance. At times, people's frame freezes and they become trapped in that singular moment. All that they define about life, about who they are returns to that singular point. We imprison ourselves by our thoughts, by our own choice.

Life does throw us challenges at many turns, but it is our choice to either become entrapped and fall into despair, or to seek for our liberation. It is our choice how we wish to perceive events and circumstances. We can take charge and create our existence or we can allow life to control us. Human beings have the capability of being resilient. We have the ability to create, to create our own destiny. Eplicletus had stated that men are not disturbed by events but rather their perceptions of them.

Challenges and mistakes can be moments of discovery, if we will allow them to be. Hindus often use the greeting, "Namaste". This statement implies that I honor the self within you. We are all inter-connected, each of us plays a role in this play of life, we are all part of the human condition. Within each of us is the innate ability to remain inter-connected and the nature of what is benevolent. It is as if we each are a mirror reflecting beauty, yet when this mirror becomes covered with dirt, it no longer reflects this image of beauty. The image becomes contorted, even ugly. In Buddhist thought, there are three poisons that lead to the downfall of a person- greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed implies the desire to possess at the expense of another. Hatred is the resentments we hold to, the thought of harming another, and delusion implies that we are unaware or our thinking is clouded. It is these poisons that are a 'collective sin'. We infect ourselves and our infected by others, and it is for this reason why individuals are born into various degrees of suffering.

Therefore, we must realize that our self is inter-connected with the self of others. We are all journeying the same path. It is not a race or a competition, but rather a simple journey. We cannot complete it alone.

What is success? We may find many, many answers. It is often our view of what success is that shapes our vision, our goals, and ultimately who we are and will become. Our views of success should be tempered with the reality of our mortality. Whatever our view is of that which occurs at death, we can all ask the question if our life was fulfilled. What have we created? What do we leave once we have passed on?

What exactly does it mean to love? Often love comes with strings attached or is a means by which to control another. The definition of love as put forward by Saint Paul is of great value- Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

I recall two clients that I collaborated with in therapy. One was an adolescent boy who I will refer to as Alan. Alan was seen by most as an obstinate young man who had completed departed from any sense of reality. His hallucinations had earned him the diagnosis of a psychotic disorder not to mention he frequently displayed aggressive behavior. Reading the charts from before, it painted a monstrosity, but gave little detail to what Alan’s experience might have been. When I first encountered Alan, I did not demand that he speak to me or that he not speak to me. I made no demands. I solely informed him that I was a supportive person who wanted to know him for who he is. This opened the door to intense dialogues. Together we explored questions about life that we both may have never thought much on before. The topics would drift to purpose, impermanence, suffering, the human condition. He related to me the pain of years of abuse, how he felt dehumanized and humiliated by the various people he thought would help him. He told me of his feelings of being alone, of being nothing. This feeling of nothing for him was an end at the time, but really it was the beginning. It was the door for him to question life, to question what he had been taught, to become. He related to me about his hallucinations, and his imaginary friends became mine as well. I asked about their habits, and their words. I noticed that these beings he saw were him at various points in time. As I met each of these beings, I learned something a bit more about the experience of Alan. Gradually as his emotional needs were met and he began to see himself once again as a singular person in the present moment of time and space, these beings began to depart. I saw in Alan the resilient human spirit and I will not forget him.

I was contacted on one occasion to conduct an assessment and consult with a family in regards to their son who was in his early twenties who had been involuntarily committed by his father to a state mental hospital. As I entered the facility, wondered how any in this place could not feel worthless, depressed, and mad. I entered to meet John. He appeared somewhat lethargic because of the cocktail of psychiatric drugs he was being given, but he greeted me warmly and with a smile. John began to immediately speak and told me how he was an African American infant who when he was around two years old was turned white. (John was quite pale in complexion). He then proceeded to tell me about the mind control he felt he was experiencing, that his freedom was taken away, he could no longer think for himself. I asked him who he felt was controlling his mind. His answer did not surprise me- it was his father. I later asked the mother if John’s father was a racist and if John had been abused. The answer was yes to both; the father had been linked to racist organizations. The abuse began around the age of 2. It was clear that John had a powerful message, though surrounded in metaphor. To the person only wanting to categorize behavior and ignore experience, would they have known what John was seeking to communicate? As Laing states, " psychotherapy must remain an obstinate attempt of two people to recover the wholeness of being human through the relationship between them." 1